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Legislator proposes study of Atlanta-to-Savannah rail

The proposed Atlanta-to-Savannah high-speed rail line may have more lives than a cat.

The idea to create this rail line has lived and died many times. The most recent death came last year, when metro Atlanta voters rejected a one-cent sales tax designed to fund several transportation projects, including planning for an Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line that was seen as a first step toward the Atlanta-to-Savannah line.

But the concept just won’t die. This time, however, maybe Clayton County will get something out of it.

The proposal got a new lease on life this week, when state Rep. Craig Gordon, D-Savannah, introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a House of Representatives Study Committee to look into the rail line.

State Rep. Ronnie Mabra, D-Fayetteville, said Clayton County could benefit economically because residents of middle Georgia would have rail access to local attractions such as the National Archives at Atlanta and the Georgia Archives.

“If we can make Clayton County a point of destination, it will stimulate the economy and put people to work,” said Mabra, a member of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation who is a co-sponsor for the resolution.

The resolution has drawn bipartisan support from state representatives in the Atlanta and Savannah areas who have signed on as co-sponsors. It has already gotten two readings in the House and is expected to go to the chamber’s transportation committee next week.

If the resolution passes, Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, would appoint five members of the House to the committee. Those representatives would study what conditions, issues and needs have to be addressed by the state, if it decided to create the rail line.

The committee would also have the authority to recommend legislation deemed necessary to make the rail line a reality.

The resolution brings an economic pitch to the back-and-forth argument of the necessity of a commuter rail line.

Gordon has tied an Atlanta-to-Savannah high-speed rail line to plans to deepen the Savannah River’s shipping channel, as well as efforts to increase the amount of cargo flown in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“A direct rail link between the home city of the world’s busiest airport and Savannah has the potential to greatly impact Georgia’s economic vitality,” the resolution states.

“A high-speed rail line connecting Atlanta to Savannah could quickly transport passengers for business and pleasure and be available to move cargo from the Port of Savannah to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, reducing the amount of cars and trucks on Georgia roadways.”

Gordon was traveling from Atlanta to Savannah on Friday and was not immediately available for comment.

Although the Atlanta-to-Savannah rail line idea has lived and died many times, Mabra said the Savannah port tie to this effort should help it be more successful than previous attempts.

The port deepening is popular among state leaders, which may be why it has been tied to this rail effort.

Mabra said the effects of not having infrastructure to handle increased cargo out of Savannah and Atlanta will be a key point supporters will have to drive home to their colleagues.

“We need to look at the deeper port and say, ‘OK, now what about the infrastructure that you need to move all of this cargo?’ ” he said.

Mabra said the resolution is an attempt to see how the state can “move in the right direction” to maximize the benefits from more cargo at the airport and a deeper port in Savannah.

It already has commuter rail supporters, such as Georgians for Passenger Rail CEO Gordon Kenna, watching with interest from the sidelines.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kenna. “It’s something that would certainly be worth looking into.”

Kenna said it would be difficult to gain statewide funding support for the Atlanta-to-Savannah rail line, and he suggested a more localized funding area along the rail line corridor.

Lining up a funding mechanism — which would likely have to be a mixture of federal and local moneys — would be an issue, he said.

“It’s going to be hard to get somebody from Waycross to agree to pay for an Atlanta-to-Savannah rail line unless it goes through Waycross,” Kenna said. “Maybe they shouldn’t look at it that way, but that’s the way Georgia looks at passenger rail.”